Thursday, July 16, 2020

High-traffic areas in Rome, Georgia, courthouse present an opportunity for coronavirus to take hold and spread among staff members and the public

Floyd County Courthouse in Rome, GA

Have courthouses become primary hothouses for spread of the coronavirus? Evidence from some locales suggests the answer is yes. The Floyd County Courthouse in Rome, Georgia, recently closed for two weeks after 13 court employees tested positive since May 31. From a report at

Superior Court Clerk Barbara Penson said her own decision to require her 18-member staff to undergo additional testing before they can return to work . . . has uncovered three more COVID-19 cases. Seven staff members in her office have now tested positive.

At least 13 courthouse employees have tested positive since May 31, and nearly half of them have become ill.

In addition to Penson’s staff, three members of Probate Judge Steven Burkhalter’s staff also became ill after testing positive for COVID, according to Kevin Holder, executive director of the state Council of Probate Judges.

Three sheriff’s deputies have also tested positive, according to The Rome News-Tribune.

Penson said that , because all but one of her staff members were asymptomatic when they initially tested positive, she is requiring that they present two negative COVID-19 tests taken at least 24 hours apart before she will allow them to return to work. Penson said neither she nor her chief deputy have tested positive.

Floyd County Superior Court Chief Judge J. Bryant Durham ordered all 148 courthouse employees to undergo COVID-19 tests in a June 5 judicial emergency declaration after Penson alerted him that one of her clerks had tested positive for the virus and had symptoms that included a fever. Durham also ordered that all staff must present proof in writing that they tested negative before the can enter the courthouse.

Areas of high interaction with the public seem to be driving the virus' spread:

Penson said four positive tests among her staff, and three in the probate judge’s office forced her staff and the staffs of the probate, magistrate, and juvenile courts to quarantine for two weeks. She said two of the circuit’s four Superior Court judges and their staffs were also quarantined, although none tested positive for the virus.

The courthouse employees who tested positive work on the first and second floors, which have the most interactions with the public, she said. No one on the third floor, where the superior court judges’ chambers are located, has tested positive.

Meanwhile, the courthouse was fogged twice to disinfect it, and a crew from the state prison was brought in to clean and sanitize every office and courtroom, in addition to all public spaces, Penson said.

Although the courthouse has reopened, she said she and her staff are isolating in the clerk’s office. “No one comes in here,” she said. “No one is allowed in our work area.”

Only two members of the public at a time are allowed in either the clerk’s office or the deed room, Penson said.

Personal interactions among staff have also been limited in favor of communicating by phone, fax, or instant messaging, she said. All civil and real estate transactions are filed electronically, and her office will soon be able to accept criminal filings as well, she said.

Some employees work remotely, but parts of Floyd County, a county of less than 100,000 in the Appalachian foothills, do not have broadband access, she said.

Penson said no date has been set yet for jury trials to restart.

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